SEATTLE — The lead story in The Seattle Times on Feb. 15, 1970, was headlined, “Nixon bans war toxins.” In sports, the banner trumpeted that the Seattle Pilots were dropping the price of their field box seats for 1970 from $6 to $4.50 — though it became a moot point when the Pilots moved to Milwaukee six weeks later.
One other event that day, however, went unnoted in the news. Jim Pearson, the cross-country coach at Ferndale High School, didn’t go for a run.
The world has changed in myriad ways in the ensuing half-century, but there has been one constant. Through rainstorms and blizzards, floods and Nor’westers, surgeries and illness, and now through a worldwide pandemic, Pearson has run every day since.
That’s 50 years, 40 days and counting for the 75-year-old Pearson, now hunkered down in Marysville. Hunkered, that is, except for his daily peregrination in Adidas, a welcome diversion in our shelter-in-place existence.
Put another way, it’s over 18,300 straight days of running at least a mile, which is the minimum requirement for an officially recognized running streak (but Pearson, a former national record-holder at 50 miles, almost never runs that short a distance). Put yet another way, it’s over 176,926 total miles, up to and including Pearson’s 2 1/2-mile run on Friday.
It’s the second-longest active streak in the country, only behind the 18,570 of 69-year-old Jon Sutherland of West Hills, Calif. Pearson says with mock indignation, “Every day I run, and I haven’t gained a day on him.”
But everyone else in the country, and probably the world, is behind these two ironmen, as compiled by the Streak Runners International Inc. and United States Running Streak Association, Inc. Their registry is all based on the honor system, but Pearson has 50 years-plus of log books and running diaries to back him up.
“I’ve always said the first 100 days are the hardest on this streak stuff,” said Pearson. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re amazing.’ No, I’m not. People who can do one year, that’s amazing. How do you run every day for a year? But once you’ve done that, it’s something you just do.”
Pearson is duly grateful that running is an activity that can be maintained through the coronavirus quarantining — with proper social distancing, of course. It’s just one of numerous challenges Pearson has faced to keep his streak alive since his summer coach with the Everett Elks track team, Keith Gilbertson Sr., implored Pearson to get more consistent with his running.
That tip, Pearson says with reverence, changed his life. He began running every day, but about a month into this new regimen, he missed a day with the flu. That was Feb. 15, 1970. It was the last zero in his logbook through nine presidential administrations.
And Gilbertson was right. From self-proclaimed mediocrity as a track athlete at Lake Stevens High School and Western Washington University, Pearson became one of the most decorated distance runners in the country, and afterward a highly successful coach. His 50-mile record of 5:12.41, set in 1975 and held for four years, was followed by national records at 100 miles in 1980 and ’81. Pearson qualified for two Olympic trials in the marathon (1972 and ’76). He won the Portland Marathon in 1972 and the Seattle Marathon in 1973 — the first runner to win both races.
Running became a way of life in the Pearson family. All three of his children, two boys and a girl, put together run streaks that stretched into multiple years. Barbie, his wife, didn’t run, but she told Jim when they were married, “I won’t interfere with your running.”
“My kids thought it was automatic that everyone ran every day,” Pearson said.
Pearson’s son, Joel, the head track and cross-country coach at Mountlake Terrace High School, has an ongoing running streak of 25-plus years. Now 34, Joel began the streak at age 8 running alongside his dad, whom he calls “my best friend, mentor, and hero.”
Oh, Jim Pearson’s streak has had some close calls over the years, which he can recall in exquisite detail. A conversation with Pearson is like a leisurely run in the woods, replete with detours and course changes — but ultimately you reach your destination. And you’re better for the scenery along the way.
Pearson prefers to call his streak a “commitment” rather than an obsession or compulsion. He believes he has developed a sense of when his body is about to break down, and he backs off accordingly.
“I’ve never thought of not running on problem days,” he mused. “I just thought, ‘How can I do this and not make things worse?’ ”
Like the time about 20 years ago his oldest son, James — known to the world as “Hopper” — showed him a wrestling move called “a leg lace” while in middle school. Pearson was so impressed he asked to see it again — and ended up doing damage to his leg and chest.
“I was told I could never run again, but I knew it wasn’t true because I had gone out and run 4 1/2 before I went to the doctor’s office,” he said.
Another time, Pearson was having some trouble breathing and went to a hospital in Bellingham for tests. With their dad hooked up to an IV, Joel and Hopper paced off a mile in the corridors, “and Dad, with stuff in his arm, did a mile run,” Joel said proudly.
It helped that Pearson’s nurse had been a student at Ferndale High School, where Pearson taught and coached for 33 years. She knew it was futile to stop him.
Once while working backstage at daughter Paige’s play in Mount Vernon, Pearson bent awkwardly and aggravated the previous wrestling injury. The pain was excruciating, and five or six attempts to run the next day were fruitless.
“I said, ‘Well, the streak’s over,’ ” Pearson recalled.
But Joel came home and implored his dad to try one more time. And Pearson gutted his way through a mile and a quarter. That was the beginning of a three-month ordeal, he said, but as always, he persevered.
Just as he persevered after suffering prostate cancer in 2004. Just to be safe, Pearson got in his run in the morning before the surgery.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t run that day (after the surgery),” he said. “But I was fine. I jogged across the yard in the evening just to test it out.”
Three years ago, Pearson had hernia surgery and was told he couldn’t run for 10 days. He knew that another streak he was proud of — 100 miles a month for more than six years — was out the window, “but streak or no streak, I’m not going to mess around with a little piece of my intestine poking through the skin,” he said.
Again, Pearson ran in the morning prior to the operation to make sure that day was covered.
“The time I had to run in the hospital, I was disappointed in myself for not having the good sense to go run first,” he said. “I put myself in a bad position.”
After being discharged following the hernia surgery, Pearson went out to get the mail a few hours later and couldn’t make it to the box. If he hadn’t already run that day, the streak would have been over. But the next day, outfitted in a truss, Pearson jogged a flat 1.1 miles and felt fine.
“If people ask, I would tell them I was extremely careful,” he said. “The main thing is, I don’t want to make something worse. I always plan on running. It only has to be a mile. But I hate to resort to that just to keep my streak alive.”
Soon after the hernia operation, Pearson was back up to 3 1/2 miles, which is his current preferred distance now that he’s reached his mid-70s. In his younger days, Pearson would run to Ferndale High School in the morning, teach a full day, run with his students at practice after school, and then run home. For 11 1/2 years, Pearson averaged 100 miles a week, through thick and thin.
And he’s still enduring. Pearson’s friends and family threw a big party for him in February when he reached 50 years. The lead-up to the milestone was one of the toughest stretches he’s ever had, including a bout with pneumonia. He can’t help but even wonder if he had one of the earliest cases of COVID-19, well before it was on most people’s radar. But every day, he finds a way.
Pearson knows that his streak will eventually end — probably with a shrug and an “Oh, well,” he says. He once told an interviewer that when it does come to a halt, he’ll be momentarily disappointed. “Then I’ll start running again and have one day in a row.”
So how long exactly does Pearson plan on maintaining the streak? Over the phone, I could sense a shrug.
“I’m going to make it through today,” he said.